DeLai Discusses Importance Of Social-Emotional Learning

WILMINGTON, MA – Wilmington School Superintendent Mary DeLai published her weekly blog post on Saturday, sharing some work she’s been doing with Superintendent colleagues as it relates to student’s behavioral health needs and social emotional learning. Read DeLai’s blog post HERE or below:

Over the past several months, I have had the good fortune to work with a group of six Massachusetts Superintendents and several representatives from the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents to develop a position paper on Behavioral Health and Social and Emotional Learning. The paper frames the issues for our public school districts and makes recommendations as to how we and our many partners can work together to address the growing challenges students face. Today, I share with our readers important and relevant excerpts from this collaborative endeavor focused specifically on framing the problem, the challenges we face, and the responsibilities that we as a public school district have to better support our students.

Framing the Problem

The absence of the Office for Children (OFC) has resulted in a more fragmented approach to the delivery of services for students and families who have social-emotional needs. Agencies such as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the Department of Mental Health (DMH), Department of Public Health (DPH), Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), Early Childhood and Care (ECC) and the Department of Youth Services (DYS), working in isolation has resulted in the creation of separate sets of mandates.

In addition, there have been several laws and regulations enacted that have resulted in the lack of a cohesive approach to addressing social and emotional learning. This has created certain challenges for school districts as they try to adhere to all of these mandates. These mandates include, but are not limited to Chapter 222 (Act Relative to Student Access to Educational Services and Exclusion from School), School Discipline regulations, Restraint and Seclusion regulations, Truancy Prevention regulations, Bullying Prevention and Intervention, and Safe Schools Program for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans-gender and Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth.

Our dedicated and persistent effort to close the achievement gap, including an ambitious set of mandates from the State and Federal Boards of Education, has resulted in a focus on academic rigor and high standards. This effort has often resulted in a reduced emphasis on the social-emotional domain.

In the Behavioral Health and Schools presentation at the M.A.S.S 2015 Executive Institute, Dr. Shella Dennery from Boston Children’s Hospital defined behavioral health, now the preferred term for mental health, as the scientific study of the emotions, behavior and biology relating to a person’s well-being and their ability to function in everyday life. Behavioral health is also closely aligned with a person’s concept of self. Dr. Dennery and the Children’s Hospital Neighborhood Partnerships (CHNP) Program research reported the following findings:

  • One in four adults experience behavioral health problems over the course of one year
  • One in five children and adolescents suffer from behavioral health concerns that are severe enough to cause problems in everyday life
  • 60-70% of children do not receive the behavioral health services to address their problem

We have a crisis situation around both prevention and intervention.

The nature of this problem has changed. Children in schools today are dealing with an increase in everyday stressors such as peer relationships, academic pressure, and social media resulting in feelings of anxiety, depression, and emotional stress and in some cases a motivation to develop and execute a suicide plan. Evidence also suggests a higher incidence of children exposed to trauma (e.g. DCF or court involvement, family substance use disorders, unemployment, neglect or abuse).

This changing problem is further exacerbated by the acute lack of psychiatric hospitals and crisis centers. The lack of resources in this time of critical need has extended the waiting time for students in need of psychiatric intervention. These students remain in school and the school often becomes the “default” provider of mental health supports or services. Recent changes in the student discipline regulations often require schools to maintain students who do not possess the social emotional skills to be successful or even to negotiate the stimulation of the traditional school environment.

Across the United States, one in ten children suffers a serious behavioral health problem. While the report on the Health and Risk Behaviors of Massachusetts Youth published in May 2014 indicates continued improvement in many key areas including substance abuse, violence prevention, nutrition and personal safety, the report does not provide an in-depth measurement of students experiencing behavioral health issues. This lack of in-depth measurement may be due to the difficulty in obtaining and maintaining behavioral health treatment for students.

This data is supported within many of the Annual School Discipline Reports submitted by school districts to DESE. Several school districts are observing increases, through the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in students feeling anxious, sad or hopeless for extended time periods and becoming involved in non-suicidal self-injury, or suicide. Schools are seeing an increase in the number of students who are being hospitalized because they cannot cope with the stressors of school. Students are indicating that these stressors include academic workload, increased expectations, and lack of sleep. In addition many students experience trauma related stress, resulting from homelessness, poverty and conflicts in the neighborhood.

This increase in student stressors is further complicated by the fact that a parallel increase in stressors is also afflicting the adult educators. These stressors create tension across the whole school environment. The new emphasis on accountability and the demand to keep pace with a many changes in instructional practice and the persistent criticism in the media of public education are some of the causal factors. This stress can have a negative impact on the learning environment and the relationships within that environment.

In response to the growing concerns around student vulnerability in our schools, the legislature, in An Act Relative to the Reduction of Gun Violence, created the Safe and Supportive Schools Commission. In their first annual report to the legislature, the Commission recommends creating a sustainable funding source to give schools the ability to develop the capacity needed to creating safe and supportive schools for all students.


Schools need to fulfill the promise of safe and supportive learning environment where relationships matter, where students feel a strong sense of belonging and a high degree of engagement. Schools must also teach new skills related to collaboration, empathy and perseverance. These non-cognitive skills are very much in the social-emotional domain and are the skills that students will need to be successful in a world that is rapidly changing and increasingly diverse. This raises the bar for all learners.

One could argue that these skills are “cognitive.” The mechanisms that drive behavioral self -regulation overall, such as shifting and inhibiting attention, behavioral inhibition, and memory skills, are also the ones that drive emotional self-regulation. Therefore, we need to think about these skills, not as separate, but as an integrated system that impacts behavior, learning, and emotion at the same time. A student’s ability to learn and social emotional functioning are integrally linked.

We need to take a look at our current school structures and develop flexible learning environments for our students that take into account a student’s developmental stage and social-emotional needs. This includes the use of later start times at the middle and high school levels, reviewing the use and purpose of homework, using technology to engage students and creating learning opportunities that are purposeful and meaningful.

We need to find ways to engage parents in this effort. Parents of students who demonstrate chronic behavior disorders are often reluctant to work with the school and may even perceive the school to be the enemy. Once parents feel that they have “burned the bridge” with the school, it is difficult to regain their trust and to rebuild this relationship. Engaging parents, all parents, also reinforces the message that when we talk about social emotional health, we are not only referring to behaviorally challenged students. Social emotional health refers to the developmental and emotional needs of all children.

We must engage the teachers to focus on the behavioral health and social-emotional intelligence of their students. Teachers are on the “front line” in our classrooms and their voice must be included in the design of professional development and the acknowledgement that the focus on social emotional learning is a change and a growing concern for both urban and suburban districts.

This is complicated work, as the training spans the gamut from recognizing the onset of violent and explosive behavior even in our youngest students to observing the quiet middle school student who is not a discipline problem but who is dealing with thoughts of suicidal ideation and who is at risk of self-injurious behavior.

This work also involves prevention, intervention and mental health promotion. This multi-pronged approach means that we don’t look at things from the illness based perspective, but from a strength-based perspective. That is, how can schools, beginning in preschool, incorporate the social emotional competencies that children need to develop and to practice? We also need to be clear on those aspects of this work that are within our control and those that are not.

The Responsibility of Public School Systems

Schools need to answer the call to action to address this growing concern but they also need to accept the reality that this is a societal problem which extends beyond the walls of the school building.

We need to devise a system to effectively measure emotional competencies. This effort will require significant professional development for teachers and administrators. These efforts should focus on supporting students in developing the skills of self-reflection, agency, self-regulation and making healthy choices. All members of the school community must continuously monitor the climate within the school and engender a commitment that all students can learn if we apply the principles of differentiated and personalized instruction to the social-emotional curriculum.

We must create positive school climates, provide explicit instruction in both academic and behavioral skills and build stronger classroom relationships among students and between teachers and students. We should provide professional development for teachers to equip them with the skills to leverage their relationship with students, to create positive climates, and to manage behavioral or emotional issues that might arise and their own sense of competency. These skills could have a positive impact on classroom instruction. Teachers should be encouraged to identify ways to include building positive relationships and a sense of belonging within the daily curriculum. Districts should create a position on the leadership team to monitor the effectiveness of behavioral health and social-emotional intelligence work.

Schools should also develop an integrated approach for behavioral health prevention and intervention that links bullying prevention, student discipline, restraint and seclusion, and tiered intervention. Schools should also work with the Safe and Supportive Schools group (and Trauma Sensitive Schools) on the development of a more integrated approach to intervention and prevention of behavioral health issues including behavioral health support and social-emotional intelligence curricula within the district induction program. We need to broaden the content of this training to include suicide prevention training as outlined in Section 12 of the An Act Relative to the Reduction of Gun Violence.

Recommended Actions

  • Build social emotional learning into the core values of the district, the action plans for district improvement and make it a core strand in the district professional development plan.
  • Integrate social emotional learning within the educator evaluation system through the goal setting process and the teacher feedback following classroom observations.
  • Identify both formative and summative assessment tools to monitor the health of the school climate and the success of the social emotional learning program.
  • Survey districts to identify highly effective programs, curricula, partnerships, training and professional development. The results of this survey could form the foundation of a bank of resources and eliminate the practice of districts working in isolation.


School districts across the State are responding to the need for social-emotional learning. Our efforts to date have met with mixed results and this concern continues to grow. We need a more focused approach to this work. We need to strike a balance between the quest for high academic standards with the importance of maintaining a supportive and positive school culture. We have a duty to develop students who are socially competent and emotionally grounded. We also need to be attentive to supporting the social-emotional need of the adults so that they can create the conditions necessary to achieve this objective.

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